Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz on Zionism: The rabbi's selective vision
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz on Zionism: The rabbi's selective vision

This past week Israelis held the country's Memorial Day. That is the official day of mourning for the over 23,000 victims of Arab hatred for the Jewish State – a list of irreplaceable loved ones in which Religious Zionists are represented way above their percentage of the population, a direct result of their overrepresentation in IDF officers training and combat units.

It was not a good week to read Open Orthodox Rabbi Yanklowitz's judgmental statement that "Religious Zionism is fundamentally, flawed, directionless, and even broken in many ways."  Being educated in Religious Zionist schools to give up years of your life and all too often, your life itself, to protect your fellow Jews seems to me to be quite directed, perfect and complete in every way.

This past month in which my Golani Brigade grandson and his hesder (Religious Zionist IDF service) friends are stationed opposite Gaza and endangered by Molotov cocktails attached to kites and flown overhead by Palestinian Arabs (who also dig tunnels in an attempt to attack pre-school children in non-disputed areas of Israel) - meaning that he did not make it home for the family Seder - is not such a propitious time to read Rabbi Yanklowitz words on Israel's "treatment of Palestinians," written while sitting comfortably in his US home.

And this is the first of the two years in which my post high school granddaughter and her friends are volunteering as part of the Religious Zionist National Service initiative in the most needy areas of the country – exhibiting the "tolerance, diversity and  civic engagement" Rabbi Yanklowitz finds so lacking as he examines us, with surprisingly selective vision, from 6000 miles away.

The rabbi sees fit to allege a need for  "tzedakah, mishpat, rachamim and chesed" in Israel, somehow missing those thousands of Religious Zionist young women who fill social welfare needs with loving compassion, putting off higher education for two years. Luckily, many of the overseas students who come for a "gap year" have better powers of observation and spend some of their time volunteering in projects for the elderly and needy as well.

We Religious Zionists are just not good enough for Rabbi Yanklowitz.

We are, however, in good company, because neither are the rest of Israel's Zionists. According to the rabbi, Zionism is "stagnating and losing". Tell that to the celebrating throngs last week filling the streets and synagogues, concerts, public performances and sing-alongs for Independence Day– Russian, Ethiopian, Anglo, French olim and sabras of every ethnic group. Tell that to Miriam Peretz, twice bereft mother of IDF heroes, whose inspiring speech at the Israel Prize Ceremony on Yom Ha'atzmaut puts the rabbi's words to shame.

In his strongly worded article posted on Arutz Sheva, "Zionism: The great Jewish ethical project,"  Religious Zionists and Israel are castigated by the pen of this Open Orthodox rabbi who, to his credit, is himself admirably involved in social action. Unfortunately, much of what he writes is simply untrue.

Yanklowitz, strangely, repeats an exhausted leftist mantra that claims: "For too long, the focus by Jewish religious communities has been on the land of Israel, rather than the moral purpose of Israel."  

This, however, is demonstrably false.

Religious Zionists are guided by the eternal three-pronged mission mandated by Religious Zionist icon Rabbi Avraham Kook: "The land of Israel for the People of Israel according to the tenets of the Torah of Israel."

The three are intertwined and do not contradict one another. Nor is one at the expense of the other. Rabbi Yanklowitz, who worries that we are all "being watched" and judged by Israel's behavior, even if we are across the ocean, would do well to note the following, before he moralizes on "social justice ethics":

1.  In addition to hesder and national service, the Religious Zionist sector has initiated a vast number of social welfare projects.  For example, it created tens of Torah nuclear groups (Garinim Toraniyim), made up of young families who move in groups to development towns and depressed areas, enriching the local educational systems  as well as the social and cultural ambience. It has created the volunteer Paamonim and  Mekimi enterprises that help poor families break the poverty cycle, find jobs, live within their budgets and pay off debts instead of receiving handouts.  Emunah, the National Religious Women's Organization, runs five children's homes, a network of family counseling centers and other welfare programs, all open to every Israeli, from Arab to haredi.

2. The "settlements" in Judea and Samaria have established, of their own volition, a significant number of  successful social welfare initiatives for people from all over the country: Dolev's live in facility for at-risk teenage girls, Beit Chagai's live in facility for at-risk young boys, Gush Etzion's Shalva program for intellectually and behaviorally challenged children which fills their afternoons (and has branched out to other places), the Reishit School in Rosh Tzurim and its famous workshop which became a national model for mainstreaming– to name just a few examples. Citeworthy are the Jordan Valley Shadmot Neriya hesder yeshiva whose students volunteer on a regular basis in local (non-religious) classrooms to help students with learning disabilities,making up for the difficulty in getting aides to the isolated area, and a Kiryat Arba resident's opening of a hostel for haredi IDF soldiers who feel shunned by their families. And I could go on and on.

Rabbi Yanklowitz, however, mentions specific issues which bother him, defining morals, ethics and priorities according to his own value system.

He complains about what he calls "the alienating treatment of liberal non-Orthodox diaspora Jews," ignoring the fact that Israel allows every religion and movement to pray freely in its own house of worship. Yes, its Jewish marriage and divorce laws are halakhic, a decision made by Ben Gurion to prevent a split in the Jewish people. The fact that its conversions are halakhic as well results in Israeli conversions being recognized without question in the entire Jewish world. And while the worshipers who fill the Western Wall at all hours, every day of the year, have the right to have their religious sensibilities respected, non-Orthodox Jews have a special place set aside for their own form of prayers at the Wall – although it is empty most of the year.

The rabbi criticizes "the treatment of Sephardic Jews in Israel," a phrase which once, lamentably, rang true, but is absurd today, when Sephardic Jews hold top positions in every aspect of Israeli life, In fact, in Religious Zionist  circles, it is the norm for marriages to unite ethnic groups and it is usual to hear each of the seven nuptial blessings recited in a different accent: American modern Orthodox, haredi Litvish, hassidic, Yemenite, Moroccan,Iraqi and others, with each group's traditional tunes and dances livening up the celebration.  

"Treatment of Palestinian Arabs?" Trying to figure out what the rabbi is referring to, I eliminated Arab citizens of pre 1967 Israel who have equal opportunities. Found in  every field, they fill hospitals and universities as patients and students as well as doctors and instructors, including the wonderful Arab doctor who treated me and my students at the youth village I once ran.  96% of Judea, Samaria and Gazan Arabs are self governing (any mistreatment and massive misappropriation of funds can be chalked up to Fatah and Hamas), leaving about 4% under Israeli control who, if  they were willing to abandon the terror espoused by the PA and be loyal to the state, could become citizens of  Israel. Who exactly is the rabbi blaming for this situation? Does he want the small number of checkpoints at the security wall  removed – and will he accept responsibility for the results?

"The plans to deport thousands of African refugees?" I would like to believe that this false statement stems from misinformation. The 60,000 Africans in Israel, except for a very small number, are not refugees by any definition of the term. At least 40,000 of them are male, unmarried employment seekers who entered the country illegally. Israel, a small country working to improve life for its own citizens living below the poverty line (another  point incomprehensibly criticized by the rabbi, who lives in the vastly wealthier US with its countless "homeless") and burdened with an enormous defense budget, cannot serve as an employment agency for Africans.  On the other hand, it is making every effort to help these illegal infiltrators reach countries willing to accept them (and what is wrong with finding a willing country in Africa? Is a welcoming African state unacceptable for Africans? Why?).

Residents of southern Tel Aviv have seen crime rates jump and their streets become dangerous for the elderly due to the infiltrators. Nearby Levinsky Park, which I used to walk in when I went to the area, is now out of bounds. Who has the hubris to make the value judgment that the desires of illegal migrants trump the needs, safety and quality of life of local residents?

"We’ll see that Israel, and Jews, are falling short of our moral excellence," the rabbi concludes.  There is no question that he is right. After all, one must always strive to improve, and there is always room for improvement, but Israelis have much to be proud of in a country where over 35% of citizens volunteer in some way.

Writing that "In every way, even if we are separated by oceans or aspirations, we are watched. We have no excuses; only we control Israel’s destiny" does not explain why the rabbi, who writes that he once lived in Efrat, does not come back to Israel, see things firsthand and work to improve things from within. After all, although I differ strongly with the writer's perception of the situation in Israel, Rabbi Kook also famously said that the truly righteous do not complain about injustices, they simply add justice [to the world].

And I wonder, if we are "rapidly losing" those young American non-Orthodox Jews to " the allure of  anti-Zionist movments on college campuses," as he writes, whether that is because of "myopic" American Jewish liberals who instead of fighting the lies spread by BDS and  anti-Zionist organizations, have fallen for them.